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THE forthcoming Lok Sabha elections in April/May 2004 are critical for the survival of the secular, democratic state of India because if Atal Bihari Vajpayee manages another term as prime minister, it will imply consolidation of power in the hands of the Sangh Parivar. Since the ideology of the Sangh Parivar is an open book, its victory in the elections may mean that plural democracy may formally and informally be replaced by the practitioners and believers of ‘One nation, one culture, one people’, i.e. – Hindu Rashtra and Raj. It is unlikely that the agenda of the Sangh Parivar can be implemented without Vajpayee as prime minister of India. Hence, the issue is: What is the political profile of our prime minister? Is he fully committed to the ideology of Hindutva? Or is he a liberal in the Nehruvian mould, a representative of the moderate and ‘soft’ tendency within the BJP?

A widely read weekly, India Today, brought out a special issue (12 January 2004) with the caption, ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Great Unifier.’ The Hindustan Times closed its last day of 2003 by declaring Vajpayee as the ‘Man of the Year’, clarifying that though every year such a choice was difficult, in 2003 Vajpayee was the undisputed and unchallenged winner. However, editorials represent the real attitude and opinions of newspapers. Under a caption, ‘Lucky Atal: Jaswant’s bonanza to PM’s soaring stock’, The Times of India of 10 January 2004 wrote, ‘Is Atalji India’s man of destiny, as the current chorus in the metropolitan media seems to suggest/or is he plain lucky.’ The entire tone and tenor seeks to justify the ‘financial adventurism’ indulged by the Vajpayee government on the eve of the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Not to be left behind, the Hindustan Times on its front page declared ‘Vajpayee – Man of Peace’.

Every prime minister of India – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao – has been closely scrutinized by the media. Vajpayee represents the only exception. The Nehru-Rajendra Prasad differences of opinion were routinely highlighted to show to the public that a dominating prime minister was trying to reduce the President of the country to a cipher. Krishna Menon, a trusted colleague of Nehru, was a favourite whipping boy of the media, even as the poison arrow was directed against the prime minister himself. The media displayed its true colours when it hounded Nehru on his so-called disastrous China policy. Indira Gandhi too generally received a hostile press, ridiculed as a power hungry Queen Empress, in part because her own attitude towards the media was one of contempt.

The Rajiv Gandhi regime, in the inimitable words of the late Romesh Thapar, was dismissed as a baba log government. Subsequent ‘investigative journalism’ completely eroded Rajiv’s ‘political credibility’ by highlighting his suspected personal involvement in the case of corruption relating to the purchase of the Bofors gun. He was defeated politically by the media which played on the sentiments of the people by projecting him as ‘anti-national’ because he sacrificed the interests of the defence forces. Even when General Sunderji repeatedly maintained that the Bofors gun was the best purchase for the Indian Army, the media drowned out his protestations by launching a direct attack on Rajiv Gandhi’s political and financial integrity.

The upshot of all this is that the media has the power to convey a ‘message’ which can make or mar the political career of the highest functionary in a democracy. The irony is that the very same media which castigated Rajiv for promoting ‘soft Hindutva’ by using the government-owned television to show serials like Ramayana and Mahabharata has now adopted a policy of silence while commenting on the patriarch of the Sangh Parivar who is presiding over a creeping Hinduisation of the Indian state and civil society.

This despite the personal and political profile of Vajpayee. Vajpayee has not hidden that his association with RSS began in 1939 with attending the ‘RSS shakha (assembly) in Gwalior. He completed his first year of the RSS organised officer’s training camp (OTC) in 1941 when he was still in high school and listened to the addresses of Sangh leaders, including the founder Dr. K.B. Hedgewar. He completed this RSS training by attending two other camps in 1942 and 1944 and became a full-time worker of the RSS.’ In the Organiser, Vajpayee writes that, ‘When I was ill during the Emergency, my family members did not turn up to see me. They were afraid of being arrested. Only the RSS workers helped me.’

While visiting the RSS headquarters at Nagpur on 27 August 2000 he observed that, ‘There should be no confusion over policies of rashtra nirman (nation-building). There are no fundamental differences between the RSS and BJP though views and opinions of individuals may differ.’ He went on: ‘I am prime minister today but may not remain tomorrow. But I was a swayamsevak yesterday and will remain one till my death.’ Further that, ‘I had the privilege of undergoing training under RSS founder, Dr. Hedgewar and former Chief Golwalkar.’ Thus our prime minister is a self-confessed pracharak of the Sangh Parivar.

What is the explanation for the media build-up of Vajpayee? In 1998, the Sangh Parivar and the Vajpayee government began with a hostile attitude towards the ‘pseudo-secular’ media. No wonder they appointed eminent former editors to project a ‘positive image’ of the government because they felt that the media was controlled by the secular brigade who could not see anything good in the activities of a communal party government. Given that Vajpayee’s life is an ‘open book’, how is it that he has become a ‘darling’ of the media – from ‘villain’ to a ‘hero’? Is it that the media was tired of the high-handedness of the Indira government and corruption during the Rajiv and Rao phases of prime ministership? Hence it grew up, along with a large middle class intelligentsia, as a believer in ‘anti-Congressism’. This hatred for the Congress has still to die out and the media continues to ridicule Congressmen as ‘slaves of a dynasty’. Is it that the Vajpayee government is reaping the dividends of anti-Congressism of the media? Or is it that Vajpayee, in comparison to Sonia and leaders of other parties and groups, is perceived as a better performer?

A deeper analysis of the Vajpayee phenomenon in relation to Indian media reveals that an Indian intelligentsia used to dealing with ‘open, democratic and centrist politics’ of a faction-ridden Congress party has not developed the acumen to grapple with the complex politics of the Sangh Parivar. The print and audiovisual media had little reason to explore the deeper meaning of the policies and actions of the post-independence prime ministers of the Congress party as also of V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral. Politics was what was practiced by parties or factional leaders and so the media explained politics on the basis of public actions of the leaders.

Such an approach is inapplicable for understanding the real meaning of Vajpayee as prime minister. L.K. Advani has himself admitted that the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ images of Vajpayee-Advani suits the party. A media obsessed with the prime ministerial acts of omission and commission has yet to come to terms with the Parivar. The Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal or Ram Janambhoomi enthusiasts are condemned by the media because they are perceived as ‘bad boys’ of the Parivar whose government is led by a ‘gentle’ person. In this kind of analysis, Vajpayee continues to be characterized as a benevolent patriarch, mediating between the fanatics and the others.

In such a reading, the prime minister is not held responsible for Narendra Modi’s record of governance from Godhra carnage to post-Godhra massacres or the continuing terrorisation of the minorities and dissident secularists in Gujarat. Evidently, Modi is not to be subsumed under the spurious argument of coalition dharma. Though Gujarat was in flames from March to June 2002, Atal Bihari defended Modi at the Goa conclave of the BJP in June 2002, disregarding those concerned with ‘justice’ for minorities in Gujarat. Modi won the state assembly elections by polarising Gujarati society. Far from distancing himself, our prime minister and home minister personally blessed the ‘oath taking’ ceremony of Modi. Worse was his statement that ‘Muslims had not sufficiently condemned the attack on kar sevaks at Godhra.’

The media declares ‘as man of the year’ a person who distinguishes between citizens on the basis of their religion, and equates Lyngdoh and Modi when he says that ‘constitutional authorities should maintain public decency.’ A committed secular prime minister would have unambiguously condemned Narendra Modi who called ‘Lyngdoh a Christian’. It was left to Chief Justice V.N. Khare to remind us that the ‘riot victims in Gujarat could not expect justice from the Modi government.’ Even as the judiciary and the National Human Rights Commission are defending our secular state, the gentle prime minister keeps silent, asking the media to accept Advani’s statement that ‘Gujarat was just an aberration.’

The media cannot have it both ways: highlight Mallika Sarabhai’s persecution by the Modi government because she launched an attack on the murder and rape of the minorities and simultaneously absolve Vajpayee of the happenings in Gujarat. The media buildup of Vajpayee as a man of peace post his SAARC meeting collapsed when Colin Powell admitted that America had played an active role in bringing the two quarrelsome neighbours to the negotiating table. Either the media is wrong in its reading of the anti-Pakistan policies of the Parivar or Powell is right that the Vajpayee government, like Musharraf of Pakistan, was cajoled by the real superpower to sit around the table. The issue remains: Is Vajpayee a prime minister acting as a mediator or he is an integral part of the Parivar? We have to choose.

C.P. Bhambhri